While twitter’s channels have been awash over recent weeks with news of with the imminent opening of hostilities across Europe’s top flights, many of you may not be aware that in South Africa excitement is also building as the start of the latest ABSA Premiership draws ever nearer.
Since the world’s media set up camp, fawned over the glossy trappings of the world’s premier sporting event and then, quick as a flash, left the nation just over twelve months ago, there has been virtually no coverage of South African football in the mainstream media. Was I really expecting anything more? Perhaps not, but despite all the talk of the World Cup’s legacy and the effect it was supposed to have on South Africa both in footballing terms and on a more holistic level, there has been a resounding lack of media interest in the nation’s football ever since Spain lifted the trophy last July. By all means if you know the right places to look (namely the excellent @garlyalsmith) you can keep up to date with African football, but to expect the likes of Gary to cover an entire continent’s domestic and international competitions with the depth they deserve would be unfair.
In an effort to lighten his load, I hereby set out to give a brief history of the ABSA Premiership and preview its 2011/12 iteration.
Last year’s campaign was a thriller. With one round of fixtures left to play the race for the championship was still wide open. As the final set of matches got underway three teams – Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Ajax Cape Town – were fighting for the crown. Ajax CT were in prime position to win, sitting as they did on 59 points, two ahead of Orlando Pirates and a further point ahead of the Chiefs.
On 21st May all three title hopefuls lined up against sides floundering in the lower reaches of the table, albeit sure of their safety for the following year. In other words, all three were heavy favourites going into the day of reckoning. Nevertheless, Ajax CT contrived to squander their opportunity and slumped to a 2-2 draw with lowly Maritzburg United. Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates both won, with the latter’s late win against Durban’s Golden Arrows putting them level on points with their Capetonian rivals. The Buccaneers’ superior goal difference (+18, compared to +14) saw them lift the trophy as the season came to the most dramatic of conclusions.
On Friday 12th August the new campaign gets underway with two matches, the second of which features the defending champions. Orlando Pirates will face newly promoted provincial side Black Leopards in an evening kick-off, and will be confident of getting off to the best possible start against their much less illustrious opponents.
The Buccaneers, along with Ajax CT, Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns should be the leading protagonists in this year’s edition of the Premiership. These sides have, along with the wonderfully named Supersport United, generally dominated the upper reaches of South African football since the Premiership started in 1996, much in the same way that the ‘top four’ have done so in the Premier League.
To use a cycling reference, Ajax CT are the Andy Schlecks of South African football, having finished as runners-up on multiple occasions but never won the title. Orlando Pirates have been winners on three occasions and Kaizer Chiefs twice. Coming into last season Supersport had just won their third successive title but an unprecedentedly poor campaign left them languishing in mid table. Mamelodi Sundowns are the record holders, having triumphed on no fewer than five occasions, but their last success was back in 2007 and only in the last two years have the Brazilians looked like adding to their tally.
Well travelled Brazilian manager Julio Leal is the man tasked with guiding Orlando Pirates to a successful title defence. Leal has made it clear that he intends for his team to play attractive football this year, with confidence on the ball being the key. There is a positive atmosphere about the club, further boosted by the number and quality of signings that have been made. Captain Lucky Lekgwathi has been vocal in his support of the chairman’s acquisitions and is optimistic that the Buccaneers can hold off their challengers and lift the trophy again in May. With Benni McCarthy among those who continue to be linked, Orlando Pirates fans have reason to be cheerful as the close-season nears its end, and there are few who would bet against Leal’s side figuring heavily in the title fight in nine months’ time.
Fellow McCarthy suitors Ajax CT will no doubt be eager to make amends for last year’s disappointment but will have to do so off the back of a less than ideal preseason campaign. In their latest friendly the Urban Warriors suffered at the hands of local rivals Santos, collapsing to a 4-0 home defeat. Admittedly, coach Maarten Stekelenburg (no, not that one) was using the match as an opportunity to give some of his trialists a chance to impress, but the same can be said of Santos, and the handful of Ajax supporters who watched the encounter will not have been overly impressed with what they saw. The form of South African international striker Thembinkosi Fanteni, known (with varying degrees of aptitude throughout his career) as “Terror” could prove key to Ajax’s successes this year. Fanteni, 27, is now in his second spell at the club, having scored at a rate of almost one-in-two in his initial stint and bagged ten league goals last term. Alongside Fanteni, new signing Diyo Sibisi will also have an important role to play. Last year bright prospect Thulani Serero had an excellent campaign, notching ten goals as a 20-year-old and making his international debut. Such was the excitement; however, that Ajax’s Dutch namesakes (also majority owners – Ajax Amsterdam own 51% of Ajax CT) signed the youngster at the end of the season. Sibisi was among the leading scorers in the Premiership last year while at Maritzburg and with Serero gone, Stekelenburg is hopeful that he will repeat such feats in red and white. Ajax have also looked to strengthen at the back, and in an interesting move the club last week completed the signing of former Liverpool goalkeeper Sander Westerveld.
Having finished a solitary point behind Orlando Pirates and Ajax, and boasting a better goal difference than either side, Kaizer Chiefs will consider themselves among the favourites for this year’s league title. The Chiefs boast one of the strongest squads in the league, with Bafana Bafana stars such as ‘keeper Itumelung Khune and scorer of the opening goal of the World Cup Siphiwe Tshabalala among their number. Serbian manager Vladimir Vermezovic has strengthened the side’s front line with the addition of Lehlohonolo Majoro, second placed in last season’s scoring charts, and former FC Twente striker Bernard Parker. Parker has played top flight European football for three clubs and is a proven goalscorer at both domestic and international level, and while Majoro may have had an excellent campaign last year it is to Parker whom the Chiefs will look as their lead forward this year. As two attackers of such quality come to Soccer City, an equally impressive player looks set to move in the opposite direction. Having finished as the league’s tops scorer last season, 21-year-old Zimbabwean striker Knowledge Musona has been linked with a host of European sides over recent weeks and is said to be on the brink of a move to Bundesliga side Hoffenheim. With the wealth of talent at his disposal, Vermezovic will know only too well that his side should be challenging for major honours, and that after successive third place finishes it could be now or never if he wishes to keep his job beyond the end of this season.
After a disappointing season last year Supersport have much work to do if they are to re-emerge as a side capable of winning titles. In a bid to add steel to his side, Capetonian manager Gavin Hunt has elected to add a number of relatively experience players to his squad. Most notable among the new acquisitions are Mame Niang, Nasief Morris and Bradley Carnell. Morris and Carnell, both experienced South African international defenders, join from Cypriot (Apollon Limassol) and German (Hansa Rostock) sides respectively while Niang, a Senegalese international striker was brought in from Norwegian side Kongsvinger. Supersport’s problems were more at the back than in front of goal last season and Hunt evidently feels that adding experience to the back four will help to reduce the porosity of the back line. Despite these additions to the squad, at this stage of the preseason it would appear unlikely that Supersport are an immediate threat for the title, as they lack the quality of attacking player that many of their rivals possess and shoring up their defence alone is unlikely to get them the fifteen or so points they would need to have a realistic chance of lifting the trophy.
Last of the probable title contenders are Mamelodi Sundowns. Second and fourth place finishes in their last two campaigns have seen the reestablishment of the Brazilians as Goliaths of the Premiership after a brief slump. In 2010 they missed out by one point and last year the gap was two points. Furthermore the Downs scored more goals than any other side last season and had the best goal difference in the league. If any more evidence is required to show how seriously the club is taking its quest to regain its spot at the pinnacle of South African football, then it is provided by the appointment of Johan Neeskens as manager. Neeskens has proven himself to be an outstanding assistant manager, particularly to Guus Hiddink in a number of different jobs, but also achieved success – albeit limited – with Dutch side NEC Nijmegen as manager. Neeskens’ appointment, coupled with the fact that Sundowns already possess a squad rivalled in strength only by the Chiefs, must put them among the title favourites. The vast majority of the players at Neeskens’ disposal are full internationals, with the most notable among them including attacking midfielder Teko Modise, star striker Katlego Mphela (scorer of that sensational free-kick against Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup), young centre back Siyanda Xulu, who had trials with Arsenal last summer and one-time wunderkind Lebohang Mokoena, much of whose promise has evaporated through a series of injuries since his emergence onto the scene as a precociously talented teenager, but who remains a player of real quality. For fans of either Newcastle or Norwich, you can also find ex-player Matty Pattison plying his trade at the Lucas Moripe Stadium, where he is an important member of the Sundowns first team.
There you have it. Yes, eleven other sides will also be kicking off next month and who knows, one may even mount a surprise title challenge. In all likelihood; however, one of the five aforementioned sides, and in my view, either Kaizer Chiefs or Mamelodi Sundowns, will lift the trophy next May.
You can follow John on Twitter @jbm64.